By Mahmoud Gamal
A previous study published by the Egyptian Institute for Studies (EIS) titled, Egyptian Role in Libya: Determinants and Tracks, concluded that the likeliness of a direct and declared intervention in Libya by the Egyptian army started to increase more than ever before.
Second: Developments of GNA and Turkey positions
On July 11, 2020, the Libyan army affiliated to the Government of National Accord (GNA) announced that it would boost its defense system in preparation for a likely battle in the city of Sirte, and added that it would form a joint force to secure the western region after the expulsion of Khalifa Haftar’s militia from there.
Brig. Gen. Ibrahim Beit Al-Mal, the commander of GNA Army’s operation in Sirte and al Jafra said that the Head of the Libyan Presidential Council Fayez Al-Sarraj and military commanders agreed during a meeting held on Saturday, July 11, 2020, in Tripoli on increasing technical support to the fighting axes of West Sirte, and to further improve and broaden the defense system.
Beit Al-Mal added that this came after monitoring military build-up to Haftar forces in the area between Sirte and Al Jafra (450 km east of Tripoli).
The Libyan army announced that al-Sarraj, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Libyan army, discussed with the commanders of the western military regions, Tripoli and the central region, as well as the commander of the Sirte-al Jafra operations room on Saturday, 11 July 2020, the military situation in the country in general, the readiness of forces in various regions, the conduct of operations in the Sirte-Al Jafra region, in addition to reviewing the procedures for securing the liberated areas.
The meeting also took up the reorganization of the military institution and mechanisms of implementing programs of integrating the supporting military formations and enhancing the defense capabilities of the Libyan army within partnership programs with a number of friendly countries.
The meeting of Al-Sarraj and military commanders was held at a time when GNA forces continue to reinforce their forces west of the city of Sirte, in anticipation of a battle that Libyan activists say is on the verge.
This also comes while Haftar’s forces are also reinforcing their positions in the city, supported by Sudanese and Chadian militant groups, as well as Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group.
The Turkish side, which is the most important supporter of the legitimate Government of National Accord, is still present in the Libyan scene strongly, as during July 2020, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar visited the capital Tripoli accompanied by Chief of Staff Yasar Guler and Admiral Adnan Ozbal, the commander of the naval forces.
During the visit, the Turkish Minister of Defense affirmed that his country continues to back the internationally recognized Libyan GNA. For his part, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reiterated his country’s position in supporting the GNA, and said that the Libyan government does not accept a ceasefire in Libya except in the event of withdrawal of the Haftar militia from Sirte and al Jafra, and the return to the line of Skhirat agreement.
Cavusoglu also warned in an interview with the Financial Times British newspaper that the escalation of tension may lead to a direct conflict between foreign forces supporting various parties in Libya.
After Al-Sisi’s statements during his meeting with the sheikhs and notables of Libyan tribes, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the steps of the Egyptian regime in Libya and their standing next to the putschist Haftar indicate that they are taking an illegal approach.
President Erdogan added, “Our responsibilities in Libya will continue as they have been and we will not leave the Libyans alone”.
Meanwhile, Turkish media said a few days ago that the Turkish navy announced its intention to conduct naval exercises off several Libyan coast regions, called “Naftex”. The drills, which will take place in the coming days, include massive exercises for the Air Force and the Navy.
However, on the other hand, press reports revealed citing informed Egyptian sources that the Turkish government works to avoid escalation of disputes with Egypt to the level of clashing. These sources revealed that the Egyptian Foreign Ministry hosted a Turkish delegation on June 27, amid a media hush, where the delegation included diplomats and high-level security officials.
The delegation reportedly discussed with Egyptian officials a number of issues of disagreement between the two sides, most notably the Libyan crisis, and the agreement on demarcation of maritime borders between Ankara and Tripoli. According to the sources, Ankara sought during the meeting to dispel Cairo’s concerns about the agreement, and explained that Turkey’s military intervention to support the Tripoli government would not affect Egyptian national security.
However, observers of the Egyptian official statements and the pro-regime media coverage realize that this situation does not reflect any willingness to accept such Turkish efforts, although some bureaucratic and sovereign official bodies in Egypt may be welcoming the Turkish approach, but Sisi and his regime controlling the government do not seem ready for reaching any understanding with Turkey.
Third: Likely developments in the coming stage
During the past period, the GNA forces superbly applied the three stages of war tactics within a short period; as they gradually moved from the stage of attrition (strategic defense) to the stage of balance (offensive/defensive strategic balance), up to the stage of decisiveness (strategic offense), where over the past few months, the GNA forces took control of large areas that had been controlled by the militias of Khalifa Haftar.
Military experts are of the opinion that the GNA forces pause at the Sirte-Al Jafra line for some time is militarily understood, because whenever the GNA forces takes control of new lands, they need additional equipment of anti-aircraft, air defense systems and land armament to tighten control of the liberated lands and defend them from any likely attack, which needs some time from the GNA.
It is to be mentioned that the GNA forces had taken control of the Al Watiya airbase and then installed its air defense systems extensively to secure it and avoid any hostile actions against it, but the base was subjected to aerial bombardment from “unknown” elements that destroyed these defense systems, which indicates that providing full protection to the base at the present time is difficult.
The element of surprise in military action is an important element, and the tactic of strategic attack in battles necessitates utilization of field superiority to acquire new lands as much as possible, in case of capacity and capability.
Therefore, the GNA forces’ pause of battles to control Sirte may indicate that they have tried to use their military gains to impose a political negotiation process in their favor, at least for the time being.
Therefore, it is likely that the Turkish-backed GNA forces’ stationing there may be aimed at controlling Sirte and al-Jafra and then starting political negotiation to avoid engaging in other military battles whose outcome may not be entirely settled; and perhaps the withdrawal of the Russian Wagner Group mercenaries from Sirte (450 kilometers east of Tripoli) during the past few days towards the oil crescent ports, located in the east under the control of Haftar’s militias, may indicate such understandings.
However, from our point of view, and according to some military reports, there are no actual military signs on the ground indicating that there are serious understandings resulting in an agreement between the conflicting parties inside Libya, and that the withdrawal of Wagner Group mercenaries is only a repositioning, deployment, and distribution of roles between the forces and militias supporting Khalifa Haftar in potential areas of engagement, and may be aimed at alluring the GNA and the Turkish side supporting it with a potential political solution as a way of deception to win time for completing preparations and providing more equipment that make it more difficult for the GNA forces to control Sirte and Al Jafra.
Available information reported about likely preparation for a major counter-attack on the liberated areas in Libya’s western region, as reviewed in a previous study published by the Egyptian Institute for Studies, which stated that the control of the area in which the Sharara oil field is located in the south, may be part of a broad encirclement of the liberated lands in the west by forming an arc that passes through Sirte-Al Jafra-Ubari.
An initial reading of the current situation in Libya indicates that there is a crisis in finding a political solution to the Libyan dilemma during that phase. Therefore, the likeliness of outbreak of upcoming battles between the GNA and the militias of Khalifa Haftar to control Sirte and Al Jafra, that the Egyptian regime sees as a “red line”, is greatly increasing, which explains the intensified military build-up for all international and regional parties involved in Libyan crisis.
Perhaps what Anwar Gargash, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs said, a few days ago, points to this; Gargash wrote on his Twitter account on 14 July, “The drums of war that are beaten around Sirte in Libya threaten serious development and dangerous humanitarian and political consequences.”
On the other hand, the Sisi regime is working to find justifications for legitimizing intervention in the Libyan battlefield during the next stage in the event of deterioration of conditions and outbreak of upcoming battles between the GNA and the militias of the Egypt-backed Khalifa Haftar to control Sirte and Al Jafra.
In this context, there have been several statements issued by the Speaker of the Tobruk-based parliament, Aqilah Saleh, most recently a few days ago, in which he said “the Egyptian armed forces can interfere to protect the Libyan and Egyptian national security if they saw that there was an imminent threat to the security of our two countries.” Saleh’s statement described Egypt as having been “the strategic depth of Libya at all security, economic and social levels, throughout history.”
The Egyptian regime is also working to exploit all its cards inside Libya to legitimize its likely military intervention there. Therefore, Sisi on Wednesday, July 15, 2020, received a delegation from the Supreme Council of Sheikhs and Notables of Libyan Tribes on board a private plane coming from Benghazi.
As the pro-Sisi regime newspapers reported, this visit coincided with the Tobruk-based parliament’s call upon the Egyptian army to intervene in Libya to protect Egyptian and Libyan national security, with the aim of supporting such likely intervention.
Al-Sisi received the delegation on Thursday, July 16, 2020, where Sisi’s comment during the meeting confirmed the Egyptian regime’s mobilization and assertion of the declared Egyptian intervention in the event of failure of a political solution between the conflicting parties, and in the event that the Sirte-Al Jafra line was bypassed by the GNA forces, claiming that this would pose a threat to the Egyptian national security, as Sisi stated during the meeting.
Speaking to Libyan tribal elders, Sisi was keen to promote the power of the Egyptian army and its readiness to intervene militarily in Libya, saying, “Despite Egypt’s ability to change the military scene quickly and decisively if it wants to do so, as it has the strongest army in the region and in Africa, but this army is very rational and does not attack or invade outside its lands.”
Al-Sisi continued to emphasize throughout his talk with the Libyan tribal elders that the Egyptian regime would not allow the transfer of battles or “chaos” to the regions of the Libyan East, stressing that the Egyptian army will respond to the request of the Tobruk-based parliament in the event of deterioration of the situation, saying, “If you seek help, we will help you.”
All this indicates seriousness of the Egyptian military intervention in the event that Sirte and Al-Jafra were transcended and the battles were transferred to the cities of the Libyan East, because Sisi considers this a threat to his personal security and the security of his regime.
Any observer of the Egyptian media will certainly realize that there is clear mobilization for a coming battle with increasing possibilities to face what is called in the Egyptian media, “the Turkish-Ottoman occupation” of Libya.
Reaching a political consensus for the Libyan crisis nowadays is currently in difficult; and with a likely failure to reach a political solution, the situation may explode at any moment, which would entail dragging the Egyptian army into a quagmire of conflict whose consequences can never be predicted, not only at the level of Libya, but also to a large extent in the Egyptian interior.
Mahmoud Gamal is a researcher and director of the Monitoring and Documentation Unit at the Egyptian Institute for Political and Strategic Studies (EIPSS).